What's It All About?

What's It All About?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes


This article is my contribution to the Billy Wilder Blogathon, hosted by Aurora at Once Upon A Screen (aurorasginjoint.com) and Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled (kelleepratt.com).  Click on those links to find the list of contributors to this event.  

The film I have chosen to highlight of all the works of Billy Wilder is probably the one of which he was most disappointed, most loved by him, didn't make much money, and was not a hit at the box office.  Wilder was a prolific director and writer, one of the best.  His movies always carried the Wilder touch of humor, sharp dialogue and human pathos.  The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (hereafter referred to as Private Life), released in 1970, contains all of those, plus the added touch of the love Wilder felt for the great detective.

Robert Stephens as Holmes
Wilder had a dream about creating a film dedicated to Holmes as not just the razor-sharp consulting detective, but also a man with a private life, feelings and emotions.  Arthur Conan Doyle did not create emotions for the great detective since those human reactions get in the way of logic and deduction, something Holmes would never allow.  However, it was Wilder's intention to create what the lovers of Holmes had never seen -- the life he and his friend Dr. Watson shared in between the great cases they solved.  Wilder and his long-time collaborator I.A.L. Diamond worked assiduously on a script that became the building block for a three-hour movie.  (Diamond also co-wrote Wilder's The Apartment, one of my top 10 favorite films.)  The two men wrote an episodic film which told the stories of four particularly strange cases (one of which had the very interesting name of The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners).  Originally, Holmes and Watson were to have been played by Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers, respectively.  Much as I love both of them, Private Life would have suffered.  Wilder also believed that lesser-known actors would better showcase the story he wanted to tell.

Robert Stephens and Colin Blakely as Dr. Watson
Sadly, the real 'dreadful business' affecting Private Life was the reluctance of United Artists to release such an epic-length movie.  UA had just lost a great deal of money on Hello, Dolly and a couple of other blockbuster flops.  Wilder was forced to agree to an unbelievable cutting of half the original running time.  The episodic format made it a little easier to cut because the studio just cut out two of the cases, but Wilder was devastated:  "... when I came back [from Paris], it was an absolute disaster, the way it was cut.  The whole prologue was cut, a half-sequence was cut.  I had tears in my eyes as I looked at the thing ... It was the most elegant picture I've ever shot."  Private Life was left with basically two primary stories to tell, one of a beautiful woman, Gabrielle (Genevieve Page) in which a missing husband and six midgets play a part, and one that involved the Loch Ness monster and the royal family.  There is also a very funny episode in which Holmes is forced to intimate that he and Watson are gay lovers, in order to fend off a determined Russian ballerina.  Of interest to classic movie fans are two cameo appearances:  Christopher Lee appears as Sherlock's brother Mycroft; and the part of a gravedigger is played by Stanley Holloway, a tribute to the wonderful character actor who had also played the part of the gravedigger in Olivier's Hamlet 22 years  before.

Robert Stephens
However, no matter what was done to the movie, I completely agree with Wilder ... it is a wonderfully elegant picture.  The two paramount reasons for this are the incredible music by Miklos Rozsa and the prodigious talents of British actor Robert Stephens as Holmes.  Stephens was a classically trained actor, described as on a par with Laurence Olivier.  Stephens' own private life was rocky, with failed marriages and a drinking problem to contend with, but his professional life of acting primarily on stage, with a few films to his credit, was indeed tour de force.  He brought to his depiction of Holmes a wonderfully effete air and nasal British accent that was haughty enough for the top of London society.  He was pencil-thin (which Wilder insisted upon), and kept a nose-in-the-air attitude that just fit perfectly with the humor that Wilder and Diamond had written for him.  Of particular note is his annoyance with Watson (Colin Blakely) because of his description of Holmes wearing a deerstalker cap and cape, which Holmes had never worn and only did so because the public expected it of him. Holmes disagreed vehemently with other descriptions made by Watson:

Holmes:  "I don't dislike women, I merely distrust them.  The twinkle in the eye and the arsenic in the soup."
**************
Holmes:  "You've painted me as a hopeless drug addict just because I occasionally take a five-percent solution of cocaine."
Watson:  "A seven-percent solution."
Holmes.  "Five percent.  Don't you think I am aware you've been diluting it behind my back?"

Robert Stephens and Genevieve Page as Gabrielle ('the woman')
Stephens was wonderful in the humorous parts, but particularly striking in the portrayal of Holmes with regard to 'the woman' and his feelings and relationship with her, and a core of loneliness that was Wilder's creation.  After I saw Private Life for the first time, I believed that Stephens was one of the best Holmes in movie adaptations.  Stephens had a lot to work with in Wilder and Diamond's spot-on writing.  Another important aspect of the film is the music of Miklos Rozsa.

Rozsa's music had graced many films, including Ben Hur and Lust for Life.  He was at the top of his game with Private Life.  I've always believed that music can make or break a movie, and great music can play as important a part as any star or director.  Rozsa created a score that included his Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, Opus 24, which is highlighted in the opening titles.  I found the opening truly haunting -- a mysterious box being opened to reveal possessions of Holmes and Watson, with a manuscript that had never been read.  Rozsa's accompanying music, particularly when it segues into the concerto, is ravishing to the ear.  If you have not seen Private Life, make an effort to do so, if only to relish Billy Wilder's writing and direction, Robert Stephens' marvelous performance, and the music of Miklos Rozsa.







33 comments:

  1. Private Life is one of my favorite Wilder movies, and one that gets richer the more times I watch it. The old MGM DVD thankfully comes with at least recreations of the deleted material, and it's a real shame they can never restore it to the masterpiece it surely would have been.

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    1. Hi Danny! I know what you mean ... in researching this film, I found that no one has found the missing footage. There are some snippets of video, but nothing substantial. What a shame ... reminds me of Orson Welles and The Magnificent Amberson ... same thing happened to him. Thanks for stopping by ... come again!

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  2. The opening music is so much Ben Hur.

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    1. Oh definitely -- Rozsa's style is unmistakeable. I'm a proud mother -- my son knows his classic films! Boy I'm good!

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  3. Christopher Lee as Mycroft is as nearly perfect casting as one can get. It's interesting how rarely Mycroft is cast as he is described in the books - he's a very fat fellow, and indolent, physically if not mentally. But Lee, Gene Wilder, and more recently Mark Gatiss, are far from that description.

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    1. That is so true, Vinnie -- Mycroft is always portrayed as rather tall, thin and ascetic-looking, nothing like Conan Doyle's description. I loved Christopher Lee. I'm also a big fan of the BBC "Sherlock" and Mark Gatiss' performance.

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  4. I have watched the film twice in the last few months, and recommended it to others. "Elegant" is indeed the word which I hadn't been able to come up with to describe the film. The haunting music and the wonderful lead performance touched the heart of this Holmes fan. The story of Wilder's dreadful experience with the studio tears at my heart as well.

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    1. Great minds think alike, CW ... this film tears at the heart in many ways. Truly great.

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  5. A great post, Becky. I hope I can see this film sometime. You describe the movie, its background and its impact very well.

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    1. Thanks so much, Jacqueline ... I think you will find that this is a wonderful film.

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  6. The first time I saw it I didn't like it... but this would've been close to 20 years ago. Sounds like it may be time for a reprisal.

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    1. You should give it another try, Rich ... I have found that there are many movies and books that I wasn't ready for, or just didn't get, that I experienced years later and loved.

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  7. Let me start by saying I was thrilled you joined in on the Wilder fun, Becky and now I'm blown away by this terrific write-up. Apparently I am seriously deficient in Wilder's later works as I haven't seen this movie just as I haven't seen FEDORA. I'm sad to learn the film was butchered, but you've made me want to go out and get it so I'll be adding it to my cart in Amazon along with FEDORA.

    The Wilder humor you describe, along with the casting choices AND the music make this a must-see. Not to mention I'm a Sherlock Holmes fan anyway. I can't thank you enough for submitting this entry. Miss you around my blogging circles. You're a classic just like these movies we love.

    Aurora

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    1. Aurora, you make me feel so good -- I can't thank you enough for your kind words. If you are a Holmes fan like I am, you really should see this. It may not be perfect as a whole, but it is genius in many ways.

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  8. I'm very fond of this film, if only for the expression on Watson's face as he stalks home after the ballet. That scene has pitch-perfect timing.

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    1. Vulnavia, you hit it ... that is one of my favorite parts! Thanks for stopping by!

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    2. By the way, I ADORE your screen name -- tribute to two of my favorite movies!

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  9. Becky, it's an intriguing picture in the Wilder canon. The first story doesn't seem to fit all, but the second, longer piece is well-done and I agree that Stephens made a fine Holmes.

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    1. It is definitely imperfect as a whole, but as I said to Aurora, it is genius in many ways. Thanks for coming by, Rick. I did it!

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  11. Stephens is a wonderful Holmes, in my opinion one of the best. I didn't know the intriguing backstory around the film though - so devastating to learn about how Wilder was treated. Kind of makes me appreciate it even more though.

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    1. I'm always glad to meet a fellow lover of Stephens as Holmes. Yes, Hollywood brass can be so money-scared that they would change Hamlet to a one-hour short subject movie if they could.

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  12. Becky, One of the two or three Wilder directed films I have not seen. I remember the film being dumped at the time of its release and WIlder was upset to say the least. Thanks for adding this film to the blogathon. Now all I have to do is find a copy and watch it.

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  13. John, I bought one from Alibris.com. They seem to have everything! I hope you get to watch it.

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  14. Becky, I've never seen this one. It's a shame what happened to it at UA, a bad time for many films in Hollywood. I'll look for, at Alibris as you suggest, a good source for books and films.
    Thanks for covering this not so well known Wilder film.

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    1. Christian, it is well worth the hunt! Thanks for coming by.

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  15. When I sat down to watch it, I didn't know Billy was the director. Well, Wilder always makes everything more special, right? I loved this film, and I wish it was longer... because I'm now interested in The Dreadful Business of the Naked Honeymooners.
    And, oh, I wish Peter O'Toole had pleyed Sherlock at least once!
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)
    Kisses!
    http://criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/06/irma-la-douce-1963.html

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    1. I would love to have seen the other stories too, Le. Forgive me for not getting to your article yet -- I've been kind of swamped. I am anxious to read about Irma la Douce!

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  16. From what I understand, Billy Wilder was listening to a recording of Rozsa's Violin Concerto and thought it would be a perfect jumping off point for the score, especially since Holmes is an amateur violinist.

    I really must see an episode or two of the BBC SHERLOCK series.

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    1. I didn't know that about Wilder and Rozsa's concerto. That is such a gorgeous piece of music. I hope you like the BBC Sherlock. It is so original, and even to a purist like me, it does Holmes proud!

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  17. Okay, lady, now I have to seek this film out. It is one of the very few WIlder films I have not seen. I admit, I avoid it because of the lack of star power in the leads. Your description of "elegant" now has it on my must-see list. Great work, my friend.

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  18. Great choice for the Wilder blogathon. I'm a fan of this film and agree that Stephens was a superb Sherlock Holmes. His portrayal of Holmes's complicated feelings - particularly the sense of understated longing - for 'the woman' was sublime, and very affecting. Wonderful review of one of Wilder's most underrated films, Becky. I do have to go back, though, and listen more closely to Rozsa's score.

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  19. Hi Bec.. i have not yet seen this film... Great review as always...

    from: Dawn ( noirandchickflicks)

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